How Does Anxiety Affect the Brain?

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Anxiety about everyday things is something we are all familiar with. However, doyou know that chronic anxiety can slowly and gradually also impact the brain and overall health? While the brain is a powerful organ, it’s also susceptible to damage from the outside world. Sometimes, we may also end up damaging the brain through excessive worries and chronic stress.

Studies show that the hippocampus and the PFC experience structural deterioration and reduced function as a result of pathological anxiety and ongoing stress.

That may explain why people are more likely to experience neuropsychiatric illnesses like dementia and depression. When the brain experiences anxiety, many chemicals are released, causing a series of physical symptoms, including a racing heart or sweaty hands.

However, as the brain is always working to recognize and manage anxiety, it’s understandable that its performance can be impaired over time.

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Impact of Anxiety on Brain

All the biological systems in the body are vulnerable to wear and tear. Chronic anxiety can affect some or all functions in the body, as it activates the body’s emergency channels through the sympathetic system.

The following are some ways in which anxiety affects the brain:

1) Hyperactivity to Threats

While it’s typical to feel fearful during real danger, anxiety stems from false danger. When you experience anxiety regularly, your amygdala expands.

The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure in the brain’s limbic system, which deals with emotions and moods. The amygdala acts as the watchman of the brain, keeping an eye out for any threats or dangers.

A fight-or-flight response is set off when the amygdala detects a possible threat by sending signals to the hypothalamus. The size and sensitivity of the amygdala increases in the anxious brain. As a result, the amygdala generates a lot of false alarms. As the brain is constantly scanning the environment, it suffers from a lot of load.


2) Cognitive Mind takes Backseat

The connection between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex deteriorates due to anxiety.

When the amygdala alerts the brain to danger, the prefrontal cortex should kick in and assist in responding rationally and logically. The PFC guarantees that you have the ability to analyze information, make wise decisions, and assist you in problem-solving.

PFC is akin to the brain’s wise advisor. If you feel too anxious, the link is weak when the amygdala signals the PFC to danger. Because of that, the region of the brain responsible for reasoning and solving problems isn’t heard, which can result in irrational thinking and erratic behavior.


3) Impact on Memory

Excessive anxiety can impact our retention. (Image via Pexels/Cottonbro)
Excessive anxiety can impact our retention. (Image via Pexels/Cottonbro)

Regular anxiety can improve your memory. In one study, individuals were divided into two groups based on their anxiety levels: low and high anxiety. No participants exhibited clinically significant levels of anxiety.

However, the study discovered that groups with more anxiety were able to retain the words placed over unpleasant images. They had memories that were more emotionally tinged and therefore more memorable. The results supported other studies that suggest emotional content can enhance memory.

Excessive anxiety can wear you out physically and counteract the benefits of the stress response. Physical issues like headaches, breathing issues, and an elevated risk of hypertension, heart attack, and stroke can result from prolonged anxiety. There are also negative psychological effects, such as memory loss.


4) Bias to Hold Negative Memories

We have a propensity to hold on to negative memories compared to positive. (Image via Pexels/Ivan Samkov)
We have a propensity to hold on to negative memories compared to positive. (Image via Pexels/Ivan Samkov)

When you are anxious, your body is under a lot of strain. The hippocampus, a region of the brain responsible for processing long-term and contextual memory, shrinks during stress.

It might be more challenging for the brain to retain memories when the hippocampus decreases. The problematic thing is that anxiety deceives the hippocampus into believing that anxious memories are secure enough to preserve and remember.

The limited memories you do have, therefore, are related to anxiety. In other words, worry hardwires failure, threat, and risk into your memory. Happier memories, such as ones of achievement, success, and safety, are stashed away in the basement of the brain.


Takeaway

Experts say that if a person lessens the amount of anxiety they experience regularly, the damage anxiety that has been done to the brain may be repaired. The potential to regenerate the affected parts of the brain may be possible due to the brain’s plasticity.

Anxiety is a common condition many people successfully manage. Identifying the most effective treatments is crucial to comprehend how much anxiety can affect the body and brain. Understanding anxiety and how it affects your health is the first step towards overcoming it and finding a solution that works for you.


Janvi Kapur is a counselor with a Master’s degree in applied psychology with a specialization in clinical psychology.


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